Finite games

All human activity is such an exercise (can one resist the word “ritual”?) in squaring the circle. We first produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world we have produced.

Alas, there is magic in our self deceptions.

(James Carey)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time. Time as we know it was invented.

When clocks became widely used around the mid-1600s and into the Industrial Revolution, they changed the way we think about almost everything; work, play, rest, even the morality of time. It’s certainly changed the way the workplace operates.

“By the fourteenth century, the common understanding of what time was had changed; it became a grid against which work was measured, rather than the work itself being the measure.

Clock towers funded by local merchant guilds were erected throughout Europe. These same merchants placed human skulls on their desks as memento mori, to remind themselves that they should make quick use of their time.

Photo by David von Diemar

The proliferation of domestic clocks and pocket watches that coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century allowed for a similar attitude toward time to spread among the middle class.

Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. And these new time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold.

Factories started to require workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving.

The change was moral as well as technological. One began to speak of spending time rather than just passing it, and also of wasting time, killing time, saving time, losing time, racing against time, and so forth.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an episodic style of working was increasingly treated as a social problem.

Methodist preachers exhorted “the husbandry of time”; time management became the essence of morality. The poor were blamed for spending their time recklessly, for being as irresponsible with their time as they were with their money.” (David Graeber)

Today most of us feel the effects of this race against the clock. We are busy, stressed, optimized, sleep-deprived and anxious. We are high achievers. Yet despite this, we hardly feel like we’re good enough, useful enough, meaningful enough.

People have never had more time than we have today. The same hours have always been there. And arguably people have always struggled with some of these things. So what is different?

Previously in history, lots of people’s problems were brought on or exacerbated by outside forces; wars, food shortages, plagues, high mortality rates and the like. Today, in the age of anxiety, the number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease.

We’ve always been good at being bad to one another. But I’m not sure we’ve ever been so good at being hard on ourselves.

We could probably blame this on lots of factors. Our culture of comparison and hard-driving ambition doesn’t reward people who choose contemplation and quiet.

It demands visibility, quick gains and a willingness to do what it takes to get to the top. The worst sin in the world today is to be an average person.

To really get to the top, what does that take, besides 10,000 hours? It means telling yourself a story, and doing everything in your life to reinforce that story.

Whatever I do in life isn’t good enough unless I’m the best. Unless I’m constantly moving upward, I’m nothing. Unless I’m the fittest, best-looking, thinnest, highest-earning person here I’ve failed. I’m in competition with everyone in this room.

That narrative changes the way we interact with other people. They’re not peers. They’re tools, or in the way.

We’re telling ourselves a story from a scarcity mindset we’ve created. It might be real, but it’s not what we think it is. We have limited time and energy because we say we do.

There’s not a magic 25th hour in the day. But no one is making you go to yoga class. If your life sucks because you’re over-scheduled, do something about it. Don’t go to that obligatory party with people you don’t even like. Do you really need to enroll your kids in six after-school activities?

We schedule things in our lives to improve ourselves, and for fun. But at some point those things just start to make us mad. They’re one more chore. So stop doing them.

That’s easier said than done, but saying you ‘have to do this or that,’ especially if it’s something you hate doing, is squaring the circle. Ninety percent of the time it’s not necessary, it’s just something you’ve always done.

We should rethink the way we use our time; at work, after work and every time in between. Time is the only thing we can never get back.


Marriage, LLC.

A friend and licensed therapist gave me input for this post. I originally wrote it for a professional publication, but had so much fun with it I wanted to put it in the blogosphere. Happy reading!

The best relationships seem effortless. Watch a season of prime-time TV and a couple of romantic comedies and the path to marital bliss is clear –two physically attractive people exchange witty banter, have a few dates infused with enough drama to boost ratings, and move in together after six months. The long-running shows have enough airtime to show the fairy-tale wedding and catalog-worthy child to follow (not necessarily in that order.) According to these sources, relationships and marriage are glamorous and take little effort or communication to maintain.

Anyone who’s actually been in a relationship knows this isn’t true. Lasting marriages take work, good communication and unselfishness. Many don’t realize what they’re signing up for. America’s divorce rate is approximately 40 percent for first marriages and rises for second and third marriages. Others are married on paper but aren’t happy or fulfilled. The reasons for this national trend are too varied for this article. The solution, for those willing to try it, is relatively simple.

A licensed marriage and family therapist and M Ed. sat down with me to explain the principles she teaches in a marriage preparation class and in couples’ therapy sessions.

Q: You’re a marriage and family therapist and obviously educated on the subject. What’s an analogy anyone can use for a healthy marriage?

A: Setting up a strong marriage is like starting a corporation. Business people put months, even years of effort into corporate mergers and start ups. How much time do most people put into marriage (and I don’t mean planning the wedding.) Comparatively little! It shows. I tell couples who come in to look at their relationship as a new business and use these steps to start their discussions.

  • ·        Determine a company mission.

I tell couples to think about what they want their marriage to look like. Do they see it as an equal partnership? What are their values? What matters to them in terms of cultural and religious beliefs? Different backgrounds and values are one of the biggest causes of conflict in a marriage.

  • ·        Set goals and job descriptions.

Different expectations are fine. Refusing to discuss them is where the fight happens. Find out what the other person sees as “normal.” Were they raised in a household where Mom stayed home and Dad worked 60 hours a week? Did their parents spend every weekend together and take all their trips as a couple? Who did the finances? What chores did each parent do? These things seem minor, but the way someone is raised forms a person’s expectations about their own marriage, for better or worse.

  • ·        Do a quarterly review.

Marriage isn’t static. Give your marriage relationship the same effort and attention you give your job. Would you expect to work at the same corporation for 50 years without review, evaluation and revision? Don’t expect that from your marriage. Become a student of your spouse. Their likes, dislikes and values may change over time, and it’s your job to keep up with them. It’s also their job to tell you. What’s working? What needs to change? A constant dialogue is a crucial piece of a healthy business and relationship.

  • ·        Make a budget.

 Conflicts over finances are the number one reason for divorce in America. Fights about money are similar to fights about sex. It’s usually not the actual cash or sex people fight about, but the meaning behind it. For example, a couple may fight about one being a spender and the other a saver. The spender/saver conflict usually isn’t about the checking account balance. One person values saving for the future as the top priority, while the other values enjoying the moment more. Those fundamentally different viewpoints are what clash. This is another issue where upbringing plays a big part. How your parents handled money may be very different from the actions of your spouse’s parents. You don’t have to have the same views, but talk about your differences. Come to a compromise. Pay your bills and set up a spending money or “discretionary” account for each person. If your husband wants to buy a new fly rod or your wife wants a new purse, it doesn’t matter if the other person thinks the purchase is “worth the money.” Spending money is for each person to use as they see fit.

  • ·        Get out your calendar.

Quality time is scare, and in a culture of smart phones and texting, actual face time is a rare event for today’s couple. Pen (don’t pencil) in a regular weekly or monthly date night, as well as regular times to go over your budget, talk about how you’re doing as a couple and time to relax without any outside commitments or people. They won’t happen on their own. Let’s go back to the corporation analogy. If a boss schedules an open meeting whenever the team has the time to show up, would anyone be there? The likelihood that each person will have extra time at the same time is rare. Don’t wait for this to happen in your marriage.

  • ·        Be professional.

Never, ever talk about important things when you’ve had too much to drink. Don’t call names, bash family members or kick someone when they’re down. Think of disputes in terms of different views, rather than “right” or “wrong” views. How would you handle a dispute at work? If you wouldn’t show up drunk, insult your boss’s mother and refer to a team member as a thoughtless idiot, should you treat your spouse differently?

If anger is an issue, walk away from the situation until you can cool down. Have an “anger management policy” or plan and make it before the fight happens rather than during a fight.

Q: That’s a lot of structure. Aren’t good marriages supposed to just flow? Doesn’t love and romance have a place?

A: That’s a great question, one I get from couples all the time. The answer is no and yes. No, good marriages don’t just “click” or “happen.” Yes, there is chemistry and attraction and enjoyment of the other person that should take place in a marriage. Over time, however, the endorphins that caused those feelings fade. In other words, you can accidentally fall in love, but you have to work to stay there.

Love and romance certainly have a place. They are central to marriage. But contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t effortless. I always tell couples that having structure in their relationship allows them to have more time to be spontaneous and romantic. When a bump in the road comes up, they have planned how to handle it and can often resolve it faster than couples who haven’t discussed these things. It’s work up front, but worth the effort in the long run.

A Short Ritual

For me, summer begins in April. Every April since the age of 10, I ignore the fact that it’s still 43 degrees and possibly raining in Washington and welcome the advent of summer with shorts. Since I began working this year and my employers frown on the wearing of what they refer to as “booty shorts” in a professional environment, I wear cropped pants or capris as a nod to the changing of the season.

This rather insignificant gesture has the unusual effect of putting me in a good mood for the rest of the day and even the week. For about 12 minutes, or until my legs become numb and I realize how long it’s been since I’ve applied self-tanner of any kind, I feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and the air smells like California.

My attire has vastly improved since the grade school days. Has anyone else noticed that kids a little too good this decade? In 1995, the halls of my elementary school were filled with kids wearing whatever ugly sports shirt they dug out of their T-shirt drawer that morning. This ensemble was complimented by baggy jeans for boys and stretch/stirrup pants for girls. On good days, we combed our hair and wore deodorant. The really stylish kids sported Levis and Gap hoodies.

Not anymore. For today’s middle and grade school kids, it’s Abercrombie or nothing, with a dash of Roxy, O’Neill and Helly Hanson for good measure. The really rich kids are prowling the junior sections of Nordstrom and Dillards before they can legally own a debit card.

Their highlighted hair contains gel and hairspray, their nails are manicured and anyone caught wearing Levi’s is laughed out of school, unless they’re wearing them as some sort of grunge statement.

They’re beautiful to behold, but something is missing from the good days of 90s grunge –the ability not to care.

My shortalls were the height of style to me, as were the purple socks I sported the first day of seventh grade. That was the year I upgraded to pink-framed glasses, too.

As hideous as it sounds, I didn’t stand out all that much from my classmates – that is, until I decided to chop my naturally curly hair into The Disastrous Bob of 99. Saving that story for another post. We all wore our cargo shorts and ugly Ts like the carefree, unwashed kids we were. That first day of April when I put on my denim short overalls and my T-shirt with a kitten face on the front and walked to the bus stop was the best day of the year. It represented the beginning of summer, of 3 months filled with heat and freedom and camping trips and best of all, no school.

I’m glad I grew up in those days. Wilhelmina Models won’t be calling me after examining my eighth grade yearbook, but a woman’s life is full of enough years to worry about fine lines and silk poly-blends. Middle school is too early.

These days, I know how to use styling products and my wardrobe is heavy on the Nordstrom, light on the kitten T-shirts. A lot has changed. But last week I put on my work appropriate shorts and wedges and headed out the door with that familiar April feeling. So what if it rained an hour later! Summer is coming!

Doing Time

Sometimes, life hands you a big, fat reality check. If you’re lucky, you get to see someone else’s and learn from it a little. Otherwise, you get your own check, and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see Ed McMann at my door any day.

Ben and I are blessed enough to have pretty relaxed jobs -both of us work in flexible offices with people we like and (most days) work is fun. Other days, its not so great, but overall I’d give it at least a 7 out of 10. Many people we know aren’t so lucky. They work in demanding environments where 7-6 days are the norm, not the exception, and you better be at your desk during lunch.

Sure, it’s not all bad -they earn a lot of money. Many days when I’m driving my beater beast to work surrounded by Escalades, I dream of living the high life -granite counters, a big house and a car that doesn’t sound like a socket wrench in a washing machine when it runs.

Then I got to know some of these people and heard their stories. My socket wrench car isn’t so bad. The Escalade drivers have large expense accounts and recognition, and they work hard to get these things. Most of them would probably say they’re happy with what they’ve achieved in life.

What happens when you turn a corner too soon and experience a debilitating car accident, losing your wife, mother and child? What if your doctor calls to say its stage 4 cancer and its not curable? Less drastically, what if you wake up one day and realize you haven’t been home in weeks because a demanding job requires more time in an airplane than on the ground?

Is there a point when it’s no longer worth it?

All these things have happened to real people. I know them and I’ve heard their stories. Suddenly, life went from doing well to doing time. A gradual and devastating change. Luckily for them, they were able to take stock of what had been so important before and realize it wasn’t. What mattered wasn’t the hours staying late at the office and making just one more sale or finishing one more article. It was the time spent with family and friends or even for themselves, doing something that made them happy.

I realize this is veering to the dangerously cheesy levels, but I want to share my reality check. I don’t want to wait 20 years to know what’s important to me. My car is a piece and my counter tops are linoleum, but if that never changes, that’s alright. (When the car hits 300,000 miles, it may have to go.) If that car accident or cancer diagnosis is mine, I don’t want to look back with regrets.

There. It’s not Ed McMann, sorry! One reality check, yours free.